Journalists are their own category of beings. While I respect the ones who do their art and craft with skill, I’d rather wrestle with a big game hunter. In the words of Adam Kirsch, “Goodness, which we praise so highly in life, is infertile terrain for a writer, whether a novelist or a journalist.”
And certainly Janet Malcolm, well known for her many years at the New Yorker, is one of the best. But as she has said herself in a Paris Review interview, “I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a ‘helping profession.’ If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.”
Malcolm’s latest compilation, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, is revelatory on many levels. The way in which she “takes” what her subjects don’t know they are letting her have says a lot about her as well as them. She is crafting and weaving while she is delivering up her content. As Ian Frazier suggests in his introduction, “Over and over she has demonstrated that nonfiction…can rise to the highest level of literature.” These essays are more than mere reportage. Much more.
My favorite piece so far in the book—I haven’t yet finished them all—is the title essay about artist David Salle. Written over a number of years during the early 90s when Salle was falling out of favor after a decade of art darlingness, it consists of forty-one of her “failed” attempts to profile Salle and his work. This faceted, “cut and paste” approach is pitch perfect given the subject matter. In the words of reviewer David Starkey: “Because she has looked at the artist and his work through so many different lenses, one comes away from the essay with a fuller view of Salle’s work than could have been found in any mere puff piece.”
I have never been a David Salle fan. In fact I have been more aligned with his vociferous detractors including Robert Hughes and Arthur Danto. But while Malcolm refers to her fragments as “false starts,” memorable passages abound and reveal her subject matter as well as her own point of view:
Paintings like Salle’s—the unabashed products of, if not vandalism, a sort of cold-eyed consumerism—are entirely free of any “anxiety of influence.” For all their borrowings, they seem unprecedented, like a new drug or a new crime. They are rootless, fatherless and motherless.
Writers have traditionally come to painters’ ateliers in search of aesthetic succor. To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling. The writer comes to a place where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured.
He also once told me of how he often gets lost as he paints: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.”
Only the most pathologically pure-hearted writers, artists, and performers are indifferent to how their work is received and judged.
In 1992 and 1993, I would visit him at his studio, and we would talk about his work and life. I did not find what he said about his work interesting. (I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting), but when he talked about his life—especially about his life as an unsettling presence in the art world and his chronic feeling of being misunderstood—that was something else. Then his words took on a specificity, vividness, and force that had drained out of them when he talked about art.
“Why do you give all those interviews?”
Salle thought for a moment. “It’s a lazy person’s form of writing. It’s like writing without having to write. It’s a form in which one can make something, and I like to make things.”
Toward the end of a long series of interviews with the artist David Salle, I received this letter from him:
“After the many hours of trying to step outside of myself in order to talk about who or what I am, I feel that the only thing that really matters in art and in life is to go against the tidal wave of literalism and liter-mindedness—to insist on and live the life of the imagination. A painting has to be the experience, instead of pointing to it. I want to have and to give access to feeling. That is the riskiest and only important way to connect art to the world—to make it alive. Everything else is just current events.”